As I’m entering into my 17th year of teaching, I sometimes look back at some of the decisions I’ve made and surprise myself. This summer, I’m screening books for possible read-aloud’s for my high school classroom, but because I’m new to the district and it’s a conservative community, I’m playing it on the safe side in regards to language and content for the 1st semester to feel out my audience. Thus. it’s been hard to find books that aren’t too cheesy and child-like for my high school audience, but also aren’t going to get me sent to the principal’s office.
Sometimes though, I surprise myself with what I have done in the past, because I’m actually not a huge fan of censorship in literature, yet I have to choose a balance sometimes or restrict my choices since I also like having a career/job. One of my “moxie moments” in teaching, where I truly just went for it, was year 6 of teaching. I was a fairly new mother, my son was only a year old, and I taught a class titled “Creative Writing”, but it was also the class that was expected to churn out an issue of the school newspaper each month. On top of that, our newspaper was distributed at school, but also at the local grocery stores and post offices. The two towns my school district served combined for a population of about 1,100 people.
For one of the issues my students/newspaper staff decided we should mix up the format and do a creative writing-poetry edition that would showcase work from both the students and staff. We received a great response of entries and I was excited and surprised to see some of our submissions from individuals who I had no idea even wrote poetry. One was from a young man, who was planning on joining the military after college and built like a weight-lifting linebacker. I read the poem, and it wasn’t 100% clear if it was fiction or autobiographical, but the narrator was first person. If the poem was indeed based on the author’s real life then what the young man was communicating to the whole community was that he resented his dad for being verbally and physically abusive and a drunk.
Again, I wasn’t, and am still not, a big fan of censorship. I was a new parent myself and understood the importance of that role, and I was young and fearless. I printed it. I didn’t run it by anyone. I just printed it. Here was this tough kid, basically telling the world and his dad, “Enough of me being the victim.” I thought it was incredibly brave. I respected him advocating for himself, and I knew printing it wasn’t going to make matters worse, because like the student, I think he had come to that point where he realized he was a grown man himself, physically and mentally strong, and was not afraid of his father.
Some community members and administration made comment. After that day, I had to run everything by my boss in the future…fine. They read between the lines, and no one seemed shocked by what they were reading/it wasn’t new information to them, but were surprised it got printed. I simply said, “Not all poetry is autobiographical. You cannot assume the child is writing about himself.” To which there was no argument, and no one was brave enough to ask the student otherwise. It was clear this young man was ready to tell his story and he wasn’t afraid.
I, myself, was not afraid of his father, if he were to storm the school. Again, it could be a work of fiction (again though, based on the community’s reaction, it seemed no one was surprised to read these details about the “possible” real-life “parenting” that was happening in the home). There was also a part of me that thought. “Come on down, Dad, so you can explain yourself. I’d love to talk to you about your relationship with your son and call you out to your face.” He never called or came to the school. Doing so would be an admission to something that he didn’t want to claim.
I know my former student has zero regrets for finding his voice and I have zero regrets printing it.